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The Mysteries Behind Amazing Leg Development Explained

The Mysteries Behind Amazing Leg Development Explained
Written by Michael Garrico

In this article we’re going to unlock the secrets to fulfilling your true leg potential and carving the amazing set of “pins” you’ve been looking for, perhaps for years now.

In order to start off in the appropriate fashion - it’s best to be honest from the get go and state that getting an amazing set of legs isn’t easy.

In fact, leg development in general is either overlooked, misunderstood or a combination of the two - only the most dedicated gym goers end up having a set of pins that everyone looks at in admiration.

Now it’s your turn to join that elite crowd - we’re going to have to systematically “dissect” leg training in order for you to create the dramatic changes you need.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking to create bigger legs, enhance your overall tone or simply develop one lagging aspect of the lower body - this article is going to help you understand and piece together all of the jigsaw pieces in order to achieve your desired goal.

So what is it about leg training that the general gym going populace seems to struggle with?

Even those who are dedicated leg training “fans” don’t typically see the kind of return they’d like on their lower body.

Why though?

What makes this area seemingly more difficult to “get right” than others?

Read on and all will be revealed.

Jumping woman

So, what about leg training?

Section One: Why You’re Struggling To Make Your Legs Evolve

One of the most important elements of training legs any would-be Tom Platz or Dana Linn Bailey needs to get to grips with is that this muscle group is used to being placed under a great deal of physical demand.

Your legs carry you through almost everything you undertake in life - they’re designed to be sturdy, durable and they can generally withstand prolonged periods of physical strain and hardship.

Athlete during hammer throw event

You should never, ever prioritise one area!

If we were comparing body parts to athletes, your legs would be a heavyweight-boxing champion.

As such, if you simply perform three sets of 8 reps for every exercise you perform with them, you’re never going to see the kind of development you’re looking for.

You can get away with this with the upper body in a roundabout way providing you always vary your exercise choices and achieve true muscular failure with every set.

But your legs simply aren’t going to respond to this training approach in the same way, or at least; not for long.

The focus word for leg progression is “variety”, as some of the top professional physique athletes including the aforementioned Dana Linn Bailey are well aware of. You’re going to need a healthy mix of high rep ranges, low rep ranges, compound exercises, isolation exercises and training techniques to make some serious headway.

So Which Parts Of The Leg Should I Focus On If I Want To Create The Best Set Of “Pins” Possible?

You should never, ever prioritise one area - you’ve got to take a well-balanced approach and target every aspect of your legs evenly (every session in fact) if you’re going to come out of all of this with an amazing set of legs.

Your legs are split into several areas, all of which are going to need to be targeted in order to fully round-off your leg development on the whole.

Quadriceps

Your “quads” (often referred to as thighs) sit above the knee line and form the upper section of the front of your leg. This area is hugely important to creating an impressive appearance, as it is the first area people see when they look at your legs.

Mans with strong quadriceps

Impressive.

Amazing quads have actually become associated with amazing leg development perhaps more than the glutes or hamstrings over the years as people are beginning to understand the value of developing this area - it’s genuinely quite difficult to bring it out to its fullest extent, and only the most dedicated gym “tacticians” typically possess the amazing quadriceps muscles most of us seek.

Getting amazing quads isn’t rocket science (nor is developing any aspect of your legs) but it does require you to integrate exercises that really hit this area hard.

There are several indispensable exercises that benefit your quads massively, though some of the most effective examples have almost been lost over time - we’ll soon reveal what they are.

Hamstrings

Your hamstrings sit above the knee line at the back of the leg, in exactly the same area as the quad muscle is on the front of the leg. This area is often quite well developed in many leg trainees though not always for the right reasons.

In terms of creating the most visually striking appearance possible for the legs, your quadriceps and hamstrings lock together to provide the main “bulk” of your upper leg, therefore providing any onlooker with the most visual impact.

One of the reasons why many people find it easier to develop their hamstrings is typically because of the general negligence that goes into the rest of their legs - their training sessions aren’t balanced, and as such, their legs appear smaller overall.

Woman touching her hamstring

Hamstrings sit above the knee line at the back of the leg.

Another often unconsidered aspect to leg development is that these areas can be brought out even more by the inclusion of exercises to target the surrounding areas - as gym crimes go, this is perhaps one that most leg trainees are guilty of.

Hip Adductors

Speaking of surrounding areas, the hip adductors (or the “inner” thighs) are easily one of the most overlooked aspects of quad development, as hip abductors are to hamstring and glute development.

Consider this - most people typically associate the legs with being primarily the hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes. Not many people target their inner and outer thighs though.

Think about that term for a second, the inner and outer “thigh”...now, being that your quadriceps form the basis of your main thigh development, surely this means that neglecting your inner and outer thighs is only going to stunt the development of your thighs on the whole?

Woman doing inner thigh exercise

Don't forget your hip adductors!

Well, it does - neglecting these areas actually inhibits the development of your entire leg circumference and stops you from creating the well-rounded look that many of the physique legends you’re modelling yourself after posses.

Picture your legs from the front - imagine if you only developed the quads and hamstrings. From this angle, that’s fine, but as soon as the body begins to turn, all of a sudden you’re faced with a “void” where the rest of the leg should be.

This is an incredibly common leg-training mistake.

Hip Abductors

Your hip abductors (or outer thigh muscles) function in exactly the same way as the inner thigh muscles do, save for the fact that they side on the outside of the legs facing outwards.

Again, not developing this area is going to affect the overall circumference and volume of your legs - you’ll simply never capitalise on your leg size potential without developing these areas in an isolated fashion.

One other element to consider is that your lower body strength is going to be severely diminished without appropriate attention being administered to these areas due to them stabilising the body from the side.

Woman doing hip abduction

Make your optimal hip strengthening routine.

When you’re performing a squat for instance, if your abductors and adductors are well developed - you’re simply going to be more stable overall.

As a result, you’ll be able to lift more weight. During certain training phases, lifting more weight is going to be vital for your leg size progression and as such; this is an area you simply can’t overlook.

Glutes

Your glutes are your butt muscles, and it’s safe to say that they have been a focal point over recent years especially as more and more gym goers are starting to understand that they’re one of if not the singular most important group to develop for any female wanting to create an amazing set of legs.

Woman showing how to perform squats

Guys, don’t think that this means they don’t matter for you too - if your glutes are underdeveloped, your legs are going to look seriously unbalanced and underwhelming.

Nobody’s getting away with this one.

These muscles sit just above the top of the hamstrings and run around the side of the upper leg, seamlessly integrating with the hip abductor muscles.

In terms of creating striking visual impact, this area is going to be seen before the hamstrings are from behind; therefore the glutes need to be well developed in proportion to your hamstrings if you want to deliver the best visual impact.

There’s nothing worse than having a great set of hamstrings and a completely flat set of glutes - it’s instantly noticeable but this is going to happen if you don’t dedicate some time to their development! It’s absolutely vital for creating impressive looking legs.

Calves

In case you were wondering whether or not calves are important...they are, and if you skip them you’ll simply pay the price because people will notice.

It’s fine if you’re relying on the perception of the general public to judge whether or not you posses a great set of legs, but those in the know aren’t necessarily going to look straight at your hamstrings and quads - they’ll probably look at your calves first.

Man's calves

Always wanted a pair of diamond shaped calves?

Why? Because creating impressive calves is almost a “rite of passage” for experienced trainees, and veteran gym goers know that a novice will overlook this area in pursuit of developing areas they deem to be more important.

All you’ll be left with if you don’t develop this area is an incredibly well formed upper leg that seemingly goes downwards in a “funnel” like nature and reaches its conclusion with a stick attached to a foot. No one wants that.

For the sake of your leg development overall, you absolutely must start taking your calves seriously, if for no other reason because they’re important for stability and will help you greatly when performing other exercises.

You’d be amazed how many of the modern physique professional’s neglect this area, and it seriously shows - it’s sometimes the difference between perfection and a wasted opportunity.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, often considered to be the “king” of bodybuilding was guilty of neglecting his calves when his professional bodybuilding career first started to develop - learn from his experience and make sure you hit them hard.

Synergy And Variety

Can you see after reading through the above section how important it is to work every area of your legs evenly? It’s ultimately this lack of synergy that really stumps the development of so many legs all over the world in conjunction with variety as we’re now going to discuss.

Women legs sticking out washing machine

Never skip leg day!

Even if you’re lucky enough to understand the formation and basic mechanics of the legs, that doesn’t mean by default that you’re going to know how to train them for maximum effect - as millions of people sadly already know.

Training legs effectively can be summarized quite effectively by an old Italian principle known as the “Pareto” principle. You might think at this point in time that old-fashioned philosophy has no place here, but it really does.

80% of the things you do aren’t as effective for your progression as the other 20%.

The Pareto principal                 

Nowhere is this statement truer than with leg training (and in fact, training in general.)

Most people spend their time training in the “80%” zone, completely neglecting the 20% of exercises that are actually fundamentally important for their leg development and size on the whole.

Not only do they neglect these exercises, they also very rarely alternate their rep ranges and set counts or even the manner in which these sets are performed. Based on this, it’s very easy to see why more people aren’t achieving the legs they desire.

What Are These “20%” Of Exercises And Why Are They So Important?

In no way do we intend to offend you or anyone else you know with the following statement, but it is sadly true.

Everyone wants amazing legs, but nobody wants to squat or lift heavy weights on leg day. These elements are hard, and people don’t like them - they would prefer to avoid them.

Squats, Romanian deadlifts (and normal deadlifts), heavy leg pressing and any other leg press variants when performed with perfect form and heavy weights form an absolutely vital part of the structural development of your legs.

As you’ll see by the list above, we’ve primarily described compound (multi muscle) exercises - and that’s exactly right, these exercise types really are vastly important for size development.

You should see these types of exercises as building the framework for isolation (singular muscle) exercises to further develop - you’ll need to perform both higher and lower rep ranges with these compound movements to achieve maximum results.

Without these fundamental exercises, your overall leg “mass” simply isn’t going to develop - you absolutely need to include them to achieve the kind of total leg development you’re looking for.

Shouldn’t You Always Use Lots Of Reps For Leg Training?

It’s commonly touted that there’s always a “best” way to train any muscle group, and the simple truth is that there just isn’t.

Past the inclusion of certain exercises that are vital for the formation of your leg muscles like the squat, you’re going to have to take a widely varied and fully encompassing approach in order to achieve the look you’re going for.

Legs on the beach

Nobody wants to squat or lift heavy weights on leg day.

You’re going to need to perform heavy, low volume reps one or two weeks in a row, then change the game completely and lighten the load whilst going for a higher rep range with a set exercise.

At no one point should you ever stick with one set rep or weight range unless you’re specifically training for sports performance - we’re going to take a wild guess that you’re here primarily for appearance purposes though as opposed to athletically charged reasons. With that in mind; variety is the spice of life.

One of the most damaging aspects of health and fitness in general is that everybody has an opinion and they’re entitled to voice it - the right to free speech is incredibly important, but it does allow people to state that they’re providing the “only” advice anyone should listen to. This is ultimately how injury and lack of progression often occurs.

Anybody claiming that they have the “ultimate” training method or stating that they have a “one size fits all” program to deliver blistering results for a body part should be ignored - the cornerstones of progression are and always will be patience, variety, nutritional adherence and impeccable technique performance.

Your legs are no different - you’re going to need to include the “20%” of exercises mentioned above in conjunction with the other “80%” to fully develop your legs and create a well rounded appearance.

With that in mind, it’s about time we got onto the exercises themselves so that you can start making the awesome gains you deserve and become the envy of all of your gym buddies.

Beautiful woman walking

Awesome!

Section Two: Some Of The Most Effective Leg Exercises

This is where we look at the stuff that really works and explain how to perform it in order to carve an incredible set of “pins.”

You’ll know some of these and (hopefully) already be well versed with them, but others are going to seem a little off the wall. That’s good though, because some of the “craziest” leg exercises out there are genuinely some of the best.

We’ve broken all of the exercises down in relation to their target area for convenience, starting with exercises for general leg development.

General Leg Exercises

These exercises target the legs in a “roundabout” manner and successfully integrate every muscle in the lower body.

You’re going to need to perform these movements for both heavy and light weight phases with low and high volume rep ranges to maximise both growth and conditioning in the entire lower body.

If it’s listed here (in any of these sections in fact) it needs to be done regularly. It’s as simple as that.

Barbell Squats

Areas covered: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.

To perform the movement, simply start with a bar placed on the back of the neck and the feet shoulder width apart. Bend at the hips and knees whilst the upper body remains upright (and the back remains perfectly straight) and lower the glutes down until the hips and knees reach at least a 90-degree angle. Return to the top and repeat the movement.

Leg Press

Areas covered: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.

Picture of a woman using leg press machine on a black background

Leg press machine - your new best friend.

To perform this movement, lie with the back flat against the pad and place the feet shoulder width apart on the weight platform. Bend at the hips and knees whilst lowering the platform until they reach a 90 degree angle, then return to the starting position whilst ensuring a slight bend is left in the knee and hip joints at all times.

Lunges

Areas covered: Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, inner and outer thighs

Start with the feet shoulder width apart with one dumbbell in each hand. Proceed to step one foot out in front of the body whilst keeping one leg behind. Bend the hips and knees to 90 degrees whilst lowering the glutes, then return to the starting position and switch legs.

Quad Dominant Exercises

These exercises are going to be amazing for your overall quad development and need to be included as part of your training on a regular basis if you want to create beautifully sculpted “tear drop” quads.

Sissy Squats

Areas covered: Quadriceps, calves, glutes

To perform a sissy squat, place your feet in the platform (ask your gym if they have a specialist sissy squat platform) and proceed to lean the body back to a 45-degree angle.

Bend at the hips and knees until they reach a 90-degree angle whilst lowering the glutes until they hover just above the ground. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Front Squats

Areas covered: Quadriceps, glutes

To perform a front squat, start with a barbell resting across your shoulder clavicle - support the bar by crossing your arms over it and resting the hands on your shoulders.

Woman showing how to perform front squats

Proceed to bend at the hips and knees whilst lowering the body so that the glutes hover just above the ground and the hip and knee joints reach a 90-degree angle. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Leg Extensions

Areas covered: Quadriceps

Place the pad just above the ankle joint and ensure the knees are bent to 90 degrees. Proceed to elevate the pad by raising the legs until the calves are parallel to the floor. Leave a slight bend at the knees at the top of the movement, and then return to the starting position.

Hamstring Dominant Exercises

These exercises are all fantastic for developing the hamstrings - note that two of the exercises listed are equally as effective for the glutes as they are the hamstrings.

Glute Ham Raise

Areas covered: Hamstrings, glutes

To perform this movement, position the body on the glute ham platform (ask your gym if they have one) so that the knees rest just behind the peak of the kneepads.

Proceed to lower the body by straightening the legs until they are fully extended (with a slight bend at the knee) and the body is parallel to the floor in mid air.

Proceed to raise the body back up to the starting position purely by using the hamstrings and glutes.

Romanian Deadlifts

Areas covered: Hamstrings, glutes

To perform this exercise, grab a barbell and hold it at hip height with the feet shoulder width apart and the hands gripping the bar just outside shoulder width.

Woman showing how to perform romanian deadlift

Perform exercises correctly to prevent injury and gain benefits!

Proceed to bend at the hips whilst keeping the knees straight (with only a slight bend maintained at all times for safety) and lower the body down whilst reaching towards the ground with the bar and keeping the back totally straight. Raise the upper body back up to the starting position.

Prone Hamstring Curls

Areas covered: Hamstrings

Start with the body lying flat on the hamstring curl bench - proceed to position the pad so that it rests just above the ankle joint on the back of the leg.

Bend the knees to 90 degrees whilst elevating the pad, then return the pad to the starting position whilst leaving a slight bend at the knees at all times.

Glute Dominant Exercises

These exercises are all fantastic for targeting the glutes - you’ll also get some hamstring involvement when performing them.

Deadlifts

Areas covered: Back, glutes, hamstrings

Man showing how to perform deadlift exercise

To perform this exercise, start with a bar at ground level and proceed to grip it with both hands whilst ensuring they are placed just outside shoulder width apart.

Proceed to bend the hips and knees so that the body is in a seated position whilst keeping the back upright and straight. From here, raise the body into a standing position whilst lifting the bar away from the ground until it reaches hip height.

Proceed to return to the seated position and return the bar to the ground whilst keeping the back straight throughout.

Barbell Bridges

Areas covered: Glutes

In order to perform this exercise, lie flat on the back with a barbell placed at hip height and grab the bar with a double overhand grip.

Bend the knees, and whilst keeping the feet flat against the floor, proceed to elevate the glutes up and away from the ground whilst keeping the feet and back of the shoulders in contact with the floor.

Lower the body back down without letting the glutes touch the ground and repeat the movement.

Woman showing how to perform barbell bridge exercise

Glute Kickbacks

Areas covered: Glutes

Woman showing how to perform glute kickback exercise

This movement can be performed using either a cable machine or dedicated glute kickback machine.

This description assumes you’re using a cable machine.

To perform the movement, place the foot stirrup around the base of one foot whilst lowering the body down until it is on a 45-degree angle parallel to the floor.

Whilst reaching the arms out to support the upper body, push the leg with the stirrup attached out and backwards away from the body (in a “donkey kick” motion) whilst keeping the opposite leg straight and anchored to the floor. Return to the starting position and repeat the movement for the desired rep count before switching legs.

Abductor And Adductor Exercises

These exercises are brilliant for the hip adductor and abductors and should form an integral part of any all-encompassing leg training program.

Hip Adductor / Abductor Machine

Areas covered: Hip adductors, hip abductors

In order to perform this exercise for the adductors, place the pads on the inner thighs (just behind the knees) and proceed to open the pads out along with the legs and lock them in position.

From here, close the legs inwards whilst leaving a slight gap in between the pads at the end of the movement, then return to the starting position and repeat.

To perform this movement for the hip abductors, place the pads behind the knee joint on the outside of the legs.

With the legs together, lock the pads in place then proceed to spread the legs outwards - once you extend as far as you can, proceed to close the legs again before repeating the movement.

Cable Abductor / Adductor

Areas covered: Hip abductors, hip adductors

To perform this movement for the hip adductors, start with a cable foot strap wrapped around one ankle and position the body so that the strapped leg is outstretched and away from the body.

Whilst keeping the body firmly rooted, proceed to squeeze the raised leg inwards and towards the standing leg, then return to the starting position and repeat for the desired rep count before switching legs.

Woman performing cable abductor exercise

Cable foot strap is all you need.

To perform this movement for the abductors, wrap a cable strap around one foot, and whilst keeping the body firmly rooted on one leg, proceed to elevate the strapped leg out and away from the body until it reaches at least a 45 degree angle. Return to the starting position and repeat the movement for the desired rep count before switching legs.

Calf Exercises

These exercises are crucial for your calf development and must be integrated into your leg routine for a well-rounded leg appearance.

Seated “Donkey” Calf Raises

Areas covered: Calves

To perform a seated donkey calf raise, place the pad on the thighs above the knee joint whilst in a seated position. Proceed to elevate the pad by raising the feet onto the tip toes, then return to the starting position without letting the feet go completely flat against the ground and repeat for the desired rep count.

Standing Barbell Calf Raises

Areas covered: Calves

To perform a standing barbell calf raise, place a barbell on the back of the shoulders, and proceed to elevate the body by raising the feet onto the tip toes. Return to the starting position without letting the feet go completely flat against the ground, and repeat the movement for the desired rep count.

Section Three: Some Of The Most Effective Leg Workouts For Any Goal

Now that you know what some of the most effective leg exercises are, let’s take a look at some of the most effective workout plans to achieve a range of goals from all out size to quality conditioning.

Foosball players stretching legs

Intensity and variety should be your priorities.

Remember, should you choose to follow the same routine for several weeks running, you’re going to need to alter the set and rep count as well as changing the order of the exercises completely. This is vital for progression - intensity and variety should be your priorities at all times whilst ensuring all of the above areas are targeted every session.

If you’d like an idea as to what intensity really looks like, take a look at Tom Platz’ leg routine to gain a full understanding of the kind of training tactics you can implement.

General Mass Building Leg Routine

All exercises to be performed for between 6-8 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of three sets each with a 120 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 3 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 3 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

The exercises are as follows:

  • Barbell squats
  • Romanian deadlifts
  • Lunges
  • Sissy squats
  • Hip adductor and abductor (perform these exercises for a total of 8-10 reps per exercise)
  • Seated calf raises (perform this exercise for a total of 10-12 reps per set)
Man showing how to perform sissy squat exercise

Ensure you fully stretch the legs at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

Leg Isolation And Toning Routine

This routine is going to be fairly isolation orientated in order to help develop the conditioning of your lower body and enhance the muscle tone in the area.

All exercises to be performed for between 10-12 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of four sets each with a 60 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 3 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 3 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

The exercises are as follows:

  • Sissy squats
  • Leg extensions
  • Glute ham raises
  • Prone hamstring curls
  • Glute kickbacks
  • Hip adductor and abductor
  • plus
    Standing calf raises
Woman showing how to perform glute kickback

Ensure you fully stretch the legs at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

Leg Strength Development Routine

This routine is designed to vastly improve strength in the lower body and develop your structural foundations.

All exercises to be performed for between 3-5 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of five sets each with a 240 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 2 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 2 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

The exercises are as follows:

  • Barbell squats
  • Deadlifts
  • ​Front squats
  • Glute ham raise
  • Sissy squats

Ensure you fully stretch the legs at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

An Entirely Machine Based Routine For General Leg Development

This routine is for those who struggle with their body positioning on some of the free weight movements and will allow you to successfully isolate the legs in a safe and effective manner.

All exercises to be performed for between 8-10 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of four sets each with a 90 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 3 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 3 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

The exercises are as follows:

  • check
    Leg press
  • check
    Leg extensions
  • check
    Prone hamstring curls
  • check
    Hip adductor / abductor
  • check
    Seated calf raises
  • check
    Glute kickback machine
Man showing how to perform seated calf raises

Ensure you fully stretch the legs at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

Endurance And Conditioning Based Leg Routine

This routine is for athletic conditioning and will help to enhance overall tone as well as developing your endurance in the lower body.

All exercises to be performed for between 15-20 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of five sets each with a 30 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 2 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 2 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

The exercises are as follows:

  • Leg press
  • Lunges
  • Glute ham raise
  • Sissy squats
  • Prone hamstring curls
  • Leg extensions
  • Standing calf raises
  • Glute bridges
Woman showing how to perform hamstring curl exercise

Ensure you fully stretch the legs at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

So there we have it; a fully comprehensive guide to training your legs and hopefully understanding some of the common mistakes made by others in the pursuit of amazing “pins.”

As you can see, leg training isn’t immensely complicated - it’s just a case of following a few simple guidelines in order to secure the development you’re looking for. There are still many people out there who do not know what these guidelines are, and hopefully you can now enlighten them by sharing this article.

What’s your experience of leg training? Do you have a tried and tested approach that’s worked for you? What do you think some of the most common mistakes made when training legs are?

Share your thoughts with the community and let’s instigate a leg development revolution together.

This post was last updated on January 5th, 2018 at 07:22 am

About the author

Michael Garrico

I’m a 29-year-old personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry.

In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

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